“Gavel,” a sculpture by Andrew F. Scott, outside the Supreme Court of Ohio. Credit: Sam Howzit / Creative Commons.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a law named after an Ohio State University student who was murdered in 2017 and meant to extend prison sentences for those who commit crimes while incarcerated is constitutional.
The law, called the “Reagan Tokes Law” allows courts to impose an “indefinite” sentence, with a minimum and maximum prison term for first and second-degree felonies.
The law was named after an OSU student who was kidnapped, raped and murdered at Grove City’s Scioto Grove Metro Park in 2017. The following year, Brian Golsby was convicted of aggravated murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery and sentenced to multiple life sentences.
Golsby was a sex offender who had been on parole after serving six years for robbery and attempted rape.
Two separate appeals were filed after the Reagan Tokes Law was enacted in March 2019, claiming the law violated the right to a jury trial, due process and separation of powers, claims the Third and Eighth District Courts of Appeals denied before the case came before the state’s highest court.
In one appeal, a man pleaded guilty to a single count of aggravated robbery in which a firearm was involved. In the other case, a man entered guilty please for charges of having weapons while under disability, drug trafficking with a firearm involved and drug possession.
Because both men faced felony offenses, they were subject to the Reagan Tokes Law. Both filed objections, saying a Hamilton County court had previously ruled that the law was unconstitutional due to violations of separation of powers and due process.
When the appeals courts reversed the judgments, saying the law was in fact constitutional, the supreme court was then asked to weigh in on whether an a court was allowed, for some of the highest felony offenses, to issue a minimum prison term for an offense. Under the law, the maximum term would then be one-and-a-half times the minimum term.
The law presumes someone incarcerated under an indefinite term will be released at the end of the minimum sentence.
But the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction can “rebut” the sentence if the individual committed “institutional rule infractions” that compromised security or safety of staff or other incarcerated individuals, or if the person’s behavior shows “the offender continues to pose a threat to society.”
The ODRC can also contest the release if the inmate was placed in “extended restrictive housing” during their sentence, or if the individual was classified by the department as a “security level three, four, or five or at a higher security level.”
If the prison system deems any of these situations to be the case, they can keep the individual imprisoned “beyond the minimum prison term,” according to court documents.
One of the parties in the state supreme court case argued that granting the authority of extending a prison sentence to the head of the ODRC “constitutes executive-branch interference with the judiciary’s power.”
Justice Joe Deters wrote in the majority opinion on the case that the ODRC determination of release is only allowed “within the bounds set by the trial court,” therefore it doesn’t violate the separation of powers.
“It does not impede the court’s exercise of its judicial powers,” Deters wrote, with concurrence from Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy and Justices Patrick DeWine and Melody Stewart.
Also in the case, the argument was made that the right to a jury trial was violated if the ODRC can extend a sentence based purely on actions within the prison system.
But a majority of the Ohio Supreme Court said because the trial court offers a range for the sentence, including a maximum sentence the ODRC is not allowed to exceed, “no determination by the DRC regarding (the incarcerated person’s) behavior while in prison will change the range of penalties prescribed by the legislature and imposed by the trial court.”
Deters wrote that “legislation is entitled to a strong presumption of constitutionality,” and none of the arguments made by the two men upended that presumption.
Justices Jennifer Brunner and Michael Donnelly disagreed with the majority court, though Brunner wrote in her dissent that she agreed that the law doesn’t violate the separation of powers doctrine or the right to a jury trial.
What she didn’t agree with was the ruling on procedural due process, in which she said the Tokes Law’s procedures were “insufficient in light of the gravity of the decision being made – whether to release a person from prison on his or her presumptive release date.”
“This imbalance facially violates offenders’ right to due process and is unconstitutional,” Brunner wrote.
Because that piece of the law “cannot be severed from the law without thwarting the intent of the legislature,” Brunner said she would have invalidated the entire law.
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